New Exposure Study Targets Former Libby High School Students

For nearly a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has spent much of the time discovering that the asbestos problem in the tiny town of Libby, Mont. is much worse than originally thought. But the EPA aren’t the only ones interested in what’s going on in Libby.

The Center for Asbestos Related Disease is undertaking a $4.8 million study of former residents who attended Libby High School between 1950 and 1999. The largest Superfund site in the history of the U.S., Libby has been forever turned upside down by the vermiculite mine six miles outside of town that kicked up asbestos dust for decades and is directly responsible for killing more than 400 residents.

The purpose of the study is to track the health of these roughly 13,000 students and determine the extent of contamination – specifically why Libby residents have been diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases on a much faster timeline than many others who have been exposed in other ways and places.

Dr. Stephen M. Levin, who is part of the study, said, “This progresses much more rapidly [in Libby residents] than your grandfather’s asbestos-related disease.”

Some theorize diseases has been faster-moving in Libby because of exposure while lungs were still developing – before the age of eighteen. The attempt to clean up the pollution has been difficult at best, and advocates of the study say it could be important in helping the federal government better understand the problem.

Gayla Benefield, a prominent resident and spokesperson for what has been going on in Libby, talks about why this study is crucial as a way to better understand asbestos exposure. “We are sort of the petri dish of asbestos here in Libby,” she said.